An Excerpt from Jim Conrad's
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
of February 2, 2009
Issued from the woods edge near Natchez, Mississippi, USA

GARLICKY STEWS

Back at my old hermit trailer it feels good on these mornings with the temperatures usually in the 30s or 40s sitting gazing into the campfire, my hands cradling a hot mug of tea, listening to Public Radio's Morning Edition on the radio. Not ten feet from my sitting spot a Carolina Wren lives in a box I mounted the last time I was here, and it tickles me the way he cocks his head and scolds me.

My view across the old orchard toward the woods is an essay in browns and grays, with blue sky on certain mornings, and those are restful, contemplative colors. I stare awhile into the campfire's orange embers, the embers' heat warm and friendly on my face, see and smell the white smoke curling upward, then gaze into the woods. We have plenty of knee-high garlic plants here so the stew I ladle out radiates a lusty, heady vapor.

An hour of this can pass in about ten minutes.

Sometimes I wonder why most of the world goes out of its way to avoid precisely the kind of experience that means so much to me here. Others trade their free time for money-making jobs, they trade their wildlife-harboring woodlots, hedgerows and weedy areas for monoculture lawns, and they trade the sensations provided by a good, garlicky, steamy stew on a cold morning next to the woods for something plastic-wrapped in a hermetic, thermostat-controlled environment.

Why do people clean, organize, sterilize, polish, deodorize, standardize, systematize, update, make fashionable and modernize their world until they create environments so monotonal, controlled and characterless that people like myself find them unbearable?

Actually, I think I know the reason. It's because humans are genetically hard-wired to do those things. During human evolution those who knocked gnawed-on bones out of their cave and went outside to relieve themselves got fewer diseases than those who didn't, thus lived longer and produced more offspring, who concentrated their cleanliness genes in later generations.

The implication is that sometimes, to reclaim an enriching environment and to live free, we may need to consciously resist our innate cleaning and ordering impulses.

This may be one of those symmetrical phenomena in life where on the one hand the domain of the sensory-rich campfire is that of the down-and-out homeless, but also of the enlightened esthete. Who knows which one I am, or if the opposite states are the same thing? Traveling from one point to the other carries one through a vast wasteland of discarded Lysol cans, gray work cubicles and painful neuroses, but at both ends of the process there's a friendly campfire and a lovely woods.

Whatever the deal, I'm glad to be back with my bubbling pots of garlic-rich stews, glad to hear spring's chorus frogs peeping when I fall asleep next to the trailer's open windows, glad just to be alive as hyacinths poke from the ground because a whole new spring is coming to Mississippi.